Geert Wilders: The Necessary Limits of Free Speech?
Nigel Warburton is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the Open University, as well as the author of a number of bestselling books on the subject. His latest book, Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction, examines important questions facing modern society about the value and limits of free speech. In the blog below he talks about Geert Wilders, a right-wing Dutch MP who was recently denied entry into Britain.
There is a constant flow of stories about free speech in the news, so constant that it is almost invisible. Then, every few years, a particularly poignant event occurs and for a few weeks all the media are focused on the topic. Before I began writing Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction the furore about the Danish cartoons had enflamed discussion. Previously it had been the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, and then the libel case that David Irving brought against Deborah Lipstadt in relation to Holocaust denial.
For the last few weeks Geert Wilders’ 16 minute film Fitna and the UK Home Office’s decision not to let him enter the country on the grounds that it ‘would threaten community security and therefore public security’ have been the trigger for self-reflection on where we want to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable speech – a major theme of my book. It is gratifying to see that this is a live issue today, not a merely academic topic.
Wilders’ film juxtaposes disturbing scenes of the results of terrorism – including from 9/11, the Madrid bombings, an execution of a hostage – with verses from the Koran which allegedly justify and encourage violence. There are clips of extremists urging violence against a range of groups and a small child who has been indoctrinated with hatred. The second half of the film suggests that in the Netherlands the increasing number of Muslims present a threat to democracy and security, represented by the most famous of the Danish cartoons, Muhamed with a turban in the form of a ticking bomb. The film seems to imply that just about any Muslim is a potential threat to democracy and security. It is in many ways crude. But for most people discussing the film, its message has ceased to be the most relevant aspect. This has become a debate about to what degree we should tolerate speech that many people find offensive and the circumstances under which a Government should prevent someone from speaking in the UK.
Wilders, a right wing Dutch MP, had been invited to show and discuss his film in the House of Lords, and the film-showing went on in his absence. But anyone can access Fitna on YouTube. It hasn’t been censored. But preventing the film’s creator from discussing the film and its message with British politicians sent a strange message about how we view free speech in this country. As I write, Wilders is considering suing the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith for blatant discrimination and has the backing of the Dutch foreign minister Maxime Verhagen, who declared: ‘Everybody, but especially a Parliamentarian from an European Union member country, has the right to freedom of speech’.
In defence of the decision to deny Wilders entry at least one MP cited John Stuart Mill on the necessary limits to free speech, namely at the point where speech is tantamount to incitement to violence. Mill is subtler than this suggests. He used a famous example contrasting someone declaring ‘Corndealers are starvers of the poor’ on the steps of a corndealer’s house (justifiably censored) with the same view expressed in the editorial of a newspaper (a view that we should tolerate). In other words, context, which in turn affects likely outcomes should be an aspect of any decision to curtail speech.
My view about the British Government’s action is that it has inadvertently and against its wishes illustrated another aspect of Mill’s thesis in On Liberty, namely that speech we find offensive can energise us and stop us falling asleep at the post since it encourages us to reflect on why we disagree with its message. That is a reason to tolerate it and refute it with counter-speech. Without this sort of challenge there is the risk that our beliefs will just be dead dogma. Fortunately the Internet provides an easy way to view Fitna and be stimulated in just this way. The Government’s ban sent many of us scurrying to our trackpads to find out what the fuss was about and as a result are probably a great deal clearer about where we stand on this issue than before.